Andrew Stanton | 98 mins | cinema | U / G
“Pixar films” seem to have become a bit of a genre unto themselves — yes, they fit into “animation” (always dubious as a genre), “family” (almost as bad), “comedy”, and occasionally a few others, but, much as the Bond films have their own rules and expectations outside the “action” and “spy thriller” conventions, the work of Pixar always achieves special and particular attention. WALL-E subverts some of these expectations (it’s not a buddy comedy, mainly) and has received huge amounts of praise — “consequently”, some might add. It is indeed a very good film, but you’ll surely have heard all that elsewhere; instead, I’m going to draw attention to a couple of things that bothered me.
Most of these issues can be attributed to the fact that WALL-E is a film of two halves. They’re not exactly poorly linked, as elements from each feed into the other, but they are notably different. The first presents a realistically-rendered future Earth, deserted by humans (who are nonetheless represented on hologram screens by live-action actors) and now only inhabited by insects and a trash-collecting robot called WALL-E. Silent but for R2D2-like bleeps, WALL-E quickly endears himself to the audience through his actions. He’s cute, funny and likable, and the early scenes cement him in the audience’s sympathies, which is certainly handy for later. When EVE — a futuristic, iPod-alike ‘female’ robot — turns up, the film becomes a sweet love story, as WALL-E tries to instill the human-like emotions he’s developed into the cold new robot. A very funny and surprisingly touching love story, this is the film’s better half.
The second travels out into space, taking us to meet cartoon humans on a cartoony spaceship. It jars painfully with the realism that pervades the Earth-bound scenes, and the continued use of real actors in holograms highlights the cartoonish style of the future humans. There’s nothing wrong with a cartoon style, I hasten to add — certainly, it works better in films like The Incredibles and Ratatouille than the attempts at realism do in the Toy Story films — but it’s the contrast that’s uncomfortable. The story itself also takes a weak turn here: it becomes a light kiddy-adventure runaround, which is fun and still has flashes of humour and heart, but is nowhere near as daring or as effective as the first half. This is where the sympathies engaged earlier become important, because it’s the audience’s affection for WALL-E that provides most of the genuine quality in this half.
If I were to broadly characterise the two halves, I’d say the first is everything you’d hoped for after the advance hype, while the second is something you could have feared. It’s not bad — it’s still a superior light kiddy-adventure runaround, with exciting-enough sequences and a largely interesting (if unoriginal and preachy) plot — but it’s not as groundbreaking or engaging as the first half. Worst of all is when the cartoon humans land on the realistic Earth, however — it brings to mind films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where cartoon characters are placed in the real world. In this instance, that’s not a positive comparison.
WALL-E is a good film. The bits that work do so perfectly, keeping the overall quality high, and the weaker sections are ultimately only poor by comparison. If the whole film were like the second half I’d probably merrily accept it as a cartoon runaround but, coming after that beautiful beginning, it only served to gradually erode the fifth star from my rating. It’s a shame, in that respect. On the other hand, this is still one of Pixar’s very best films — I’d certainly rate it above the even-more-over-praised Ratatouille, and probably slot it close behind The Incredibles or Toy Story 2 at the top of the scale. Being pipped by films of that level — and then only just — is nothing to be ashamed of.